Waging Civilization

Posted: April 7, 2009 in Consumerism, Economics, Environment

In waging war, one of the most important administrative hurdles to overcome is how to supply troops so that they can bring the fight to the enemy. As supply lines stretch farther from a military force’s homeland, maintaining the flow of food, energy, ammo, etc. places a significant burden on invading or occupying forces. Those forces are also vulnerable to supply lines being cut when bridges, roads, airstrips, and railroads are destroyed.

It occurred to me recently that in the era of globalization, we are in effect waging civilization in much the same manner as war is waged. This idea isn’t especially novel. I may have read something to the same effect, forgotten it, and mistaken the recurring idea as something I thought up. The prompts came up again as I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse. His survey of collapsed civilizations always tell the story of disappearing resources leading to decline, usually from being used up but sometimes because supply lines were cut with trading partners.

Ancient civilizations were usually geographically isolated, so once the landscape was deforested and large mammals were exterminated and energy resources were gone, there was often no readily available substitute or alternative. The modern world does not suffer from the same geographical isolation, unless one considers how far away the next planet or solar system is after mankind has exterminated and used up what’s readily available as population growth exceeds carrying capacity, a process already well underway. With that in mind, waging civilization is not unlike waging war in that the resources that make global industrial civilization go are supplied from amazing distances in an impenetrably complex web of relationships. (Further, civilization is in many respects a war on the natural world where moral dilemmas — not even hypothetical anymore — such as whether we allow polar bears to go extinct or curtail our activities are always decided blithely in favor of humans.)

Modern civilization has been revealed recently to be just as vulnerable to supply interruptions and failures as ancient civilizations. That’s the underlying idea behind energy independence: U.S. leaders (and increasingly the public) wish to be less dependent on foreign oil and invulnerable to attacks on our supply lines. Unfortunately, there is no suitable alternative to fossil fuels to keep things humming as presently organized, despite the claims and hopes of technophiles and futurists.

  1. ..to keep things humming as presently organized…

    Why not reorganize? We may need to relinquish various conveniences and rearrange life goals, but aren’t foresight and a willingness to sacrifice for “the greater good” fundamental to civilization?

  2. Brutus says:

    Why not, indeed? My assessment is that most willingness to sacrifice for the greater good has been perverted by greed-is-good market fundamentalism and related ideologies. Further, it’s certainly not agreed among the teeming masses that we’ve boxed ourselves in (read: no escape) with excessive population growth, reliance on food and energy from afar, and other unsustainable trajectories. Current machinations of the federal government appear to be designed to either return us to an ill-advised growth economy or loot whatever’s left before the whole house of cards fails. In my darker moments, I fear that denizens of the halls of power are both intelligent and corrupt enough to recognize that their decisions accomplish whichever end actually manifests.

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